It’s hard to believe the UFC’s run with FOX is almost done, over seven years after it started. Back in 2011, the UFC signed a deal with FOX that was expected to help take the sport of mixed martial arts to the next level. The promotion gave FOX a huge fight right out of the gates when Cain Velasquez battled Junior dos Santos for the UFC heavyweight title back in November 2011.
Seven years later, the promotion will hold its final event on FOX this Saturday night in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the 31st event overall held on big FOX. That’s in addition to all of the Fight Nights, preliminary cards, Ultimate Fighters, shoulder programming and other broadcasts the UFC held on FOX. It’s been a great ride for the past seven years, and can only be considered a success when you consider the partnership helped bring MMA to a bigger audience as well as set up the UFC for this new deal with ESPN.
But the UFC’s deal with FOX is now over, and now it’s time for the ESPN era to start. As successful as the FOX era was, the UFC and the sport of MMA need this move to ESPN to really help take the sport to the next level. MMA no doubt grew because of the FOX deal, but even though I’d consider it a success, the sport still isn’t on the same level as the “big four” in North America. MMA may never get to the point where it’s at the same level as football, baseball, basketball and hockey (as well as soccer) but it can only go up from here. Look at the FOX numbers and consider that a baseline for what the UFC can accomplish on ESPN. The UFC and ESPN can both learn from the successes and failures of the FOX years, and putting everything together can help take the sport to new heights.
For the UFC, the easiest thing the promotion can do is just book the biggest and best fights possible for its ESPN cards because that’s the most controllable route the UFC can take to having success on its new network. It’s already starting off that way, with the UFC adding a flyweight title fight between Henry Cejudo and TJ Dillashaw to its first card this January in Brooklyn, New York, not to mention high-profile fighters Donald Cerrone, Greg Hardy and Rachael Ostovich on the same card.
The UFC can’t control how good the fights turn out to be, but they can put themselves in the best position to succeed by booking high-profile, important fights featuring popular fighters. There were times that FOX cards weren’t as stacked, and that’s because the UFC was so adamant about doing a new card every weekend. Hopefully with the ESPN deal in tow now, the UFC will start to realize having more stacked cards and less overall is the right way to run its business. The better the fights, the more fans will want to tune in and watch. It just makes sense.
I thought that MMA would explode into a huge mainstream sport because of the UFC on FOX deal. I know a lot of other reporters and fans thought the same thing. Seven years later and that might not necessarily be the case, but the sport is certainly on the right track to blowing up. We’ve come a long way since the dark ages of the sport when it was considered human cockfighting. Now, MMA is on ESPN, the home of some of the other best sports leagues in the world.
FOX tried its best with the UFC and for the most part it was a success, but I still feel like there’s so much untapped potential with the UFC and ESPN can help unlock it. It was a great seven-year run by the UFC and FOX that helped grow the sport, and there are some incredible memories to take away from the last seven years, but to take the sport to the next level the UFC really needed this deal with ESPN. MMA is an amazing sport but it’s still relatively new and in many ways the end of the FOX deal was the end of its infancy. Now, the ESPN deal will help guide MMA and UFC through its adolescence, and in seven years time we’ll look back and see how things have gone, just as we’re doing right now.